Who's the founding father of industrial design, the person who put modern manufacturing processes to use in the applied arts and paved the way for the Minimalist esthetic? Christopher Dresser (1834-1904), a quiet Englishman who began his professional life as a writer and lecturer on botany yet went on to design furniture, pottery, silver tea sets and more.
While he's hardly a household name on these shores, Dresser's works today are selling up a storm on both sides of the Atlantic. In London, Dresser takes center stage in the exhibition "Arts and Crafts Textiles in Britain" at the Fine Art Society. Now even the designer's textiles have been elevated from utilitarian fabric to high art, and the prices are hardly cheap. A panel of sumptuous velveteen in sepia and deep apricot with a stylized bud design was sold within days of the show's opening for $6,400 -- a good price for 54 by 27 inches of fabric.
Plus, this summer, London dealer Harry Lyons mounted a comprehensive exhibition on Dresser at his New Century shop on Kensington Church Street, and quickly wrote up sales for some 200 pieces, including pottery, dinnerware and furniture.
According to Lyons, "Clients like the fact that a Dresser work is not just another 19th-century example. They know they're buying on the cutting edge of industrial design."
Here in New York, Historical Design gallery director Denis Gallion looks back to his show devoted to the metal work of Dresser last winter and recalls uncommonly brisk sales. In fact, a total of 70 percent of the Dresser examples on view sold, with museums making a hefty number of the purchases. Prices began at $1,500 and went up to $150,000 for Dresser's sleek claret jug in crystal and silver.
Dresser firmly believed in the concept of purely designed objects available at a wide range of prices. Unlike his contemporaries, especially William Morris, Dresser did not execute designs for only the top two percent of the population. He aimed at the mass market.
"Dresser is unrivaled for distinctively clear form," says Gallion from his East 61st Street gallery, "which is particularly appealing coupled with his modern beliefs and practices."
Who are the clients for his spare, high-tech designs, like the toast rack, a simple flat tray with silver plate dowels? "People who aren't afraid to leave Georgian furnishings behind," replies New Century's Lyons. Clients even respond to Dressers' sometimes heavy furniture. Right now Lyons has an ebonized cabinet stenciled with green frogs from the late 1860s priced at $192,000.
According to Gallion, clients for Dresser range all across the board, from contemporary art collectors to Arts and Crafts enthusiasts and Frank Lloyd Wright fans. Clearly, the appeal of Dresser is growing fast. The availability of his work isn't, however. As Gallion concludes, "Owning a Dresser almost means you're in an exclusive club."
If you're keen to learn more about Dresser, take in:
"British Arts and Crafts Textiles in Britain" at the Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, London W1Y 0JT. Tel: 011-44-207-629-5116. Until Oct. 29.
New Century, 60 Kensington Church Street, London W8 4BG. Tel: 011-44-207-937-2410.
Historical Design, Inc., 306 East 61st Street, New York, NY 10021. Tel: 212-593-4528.